Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Clear Day 59° Clear

Hanford: will it ever be clean?

Karen Dorn Steele and Jim Lynch Staff writers
Imagine a giant tank brimming with enough deadly radioactive goo to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Now picture 177 of those tanks, all buried underground, some leaking their contents into the earth. That’s just one of Hanford’s environmental perils ignored in the Cold War rush to make plutonium. For five years, thousands of scientists and engineers have struggled to figure out how to clean up a mess that contaminates hundreds of square miles. The task is almost incomprehensible. The cost is still unknown. No one knows yet where the most dangerous wastes should ultimately go. “There hasn’t been any real cleanup. We don’t have any place to put it,” says Doug Sherwood, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Hanford manager. Wastes dumped in vast trenches pollute the desert soil. They clog the pipes and crannies of abandoned buildings. They contaminate tumbleweeds rolling across the plateau and poison rattlesnakes lurking in empty reactors. They seep into the Columbia River. Hanford’s vaults, soils and old defense factories hold a staggering amount of plutonium - 28.5 tons by a recent count. That’s enough for roughly 5,000 nuclear bombs the size of “Fat Man,” dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. If inhaled, just a pencil-point speck of this gray powder is powerful enough to cause cancer. The volume of less hazardous wastes dumped at Hanford is even larger. Workers poured hundreds of billions of gallons of mildly polluted water into the ground, raising the water table by 75 feet in some places. A slow-moving river of polluted groundwater covers 200 square miles beneath the nuclear reservation. There’s more. Hanford holds a vast array of toxic discards from throughout the country. Radioactive dog poop from plutonium experiments on beagles, and reactors pulled from old Polaris submarines are buried there. Some of these leftovers are an attractive target for terrorists. Tons of purified plutonium remain locked inside concrete vaults protected by infrared cameras and guards with assault weapons. The plutonium is stored as a dry powder in shiny Hi-C juice cans or forged into discs the size of hockey pucks that fit inside tuna cans. The most deadly wastes sit in the 177 underground tanks, most the size of the state Capitol dome. The oldest periodically belch and rumble with unstable gases. A tank explosion could contaminate Eastern Washington and trigger more blasts inside nearby tanks. When a similar tank blew up in the Soviet Union in 1957, it spewed radiation for 180 miles. “The tank farms keep me up at night,” admits Thomas Grumbly, the Department of Energy’s cleanup chief. Five years after the cleanup agreement, the most serious problems remain. Much of the money is spent trying to control the worst environmental threats. Only a tenth of Hanford’s $2 billion annual budget goes to actual cleanup. Five years into the cleanup, there still is no final disposal plan. The debate over how clean the site should be continues. A Westinghouse Hanford Co. billboard on the Hanford highway shows little girls in frilly dresses plucking flowers in a meadow. It’s a nice image. For much of Hanford, it will never be true. Peter Rasmussen, DOE procurement director at the nuclear reservation, says Hanford will never be so clean you’d want your grandchildren to play there. “There is not enough money in the U.S. Treasury to do that.” IT WAS DIRTY WORK A group of prominent scientists warned in 1948 that Hanford’s handling of deadly wastes would leave a mess the government would regret. “The business of constructing more and more containers for more and more objectionable material has already reached the point both of extravagance and concern,” an Atomic Energy Commission advisory board reported. The warnings were ignored. From World War II until the mid-1980s, Hanford and 16 other weapons sites, all shielded by national security, did not have to follow environmental laws. Congress never required the bomb makers to invest in safer ways to handle the waste. So Hanford managers took the easiest disposal route: dump it in the ground or store it “temporarily” in big tanks. The dirtiest work occurred in the 200 Areas, the central plateau at the heart of Hanford. In windowless, 10-story-tall concrete buildings so vast they were dubbed “Queen Marys,” workers ran a dangerous chemical process to extract plutonium from reactor fuel. The plants emitted clouds of radiation in the 1940s and ‘50s that contaminated tens of thousands of people in Eastern Washington. They also spewed millions of gallons of liquid wastes. For every pound of plutonium created, the most modern plant - called PUREX spit out 170 gallons of highly radioactive waste, 27,000 gallons of less radioactive fluid and more than 1.25 million gallons of cooling water. Most of the nastiest waste went into tanks. The intermediate waste went into trenches; the cooling water into ponds. This disposal scheme didn’t begin to change until 1985, when a federal judge ruled that DOE had to follow hazardous waste laws. A PACT THAT CRUMBLED Public concern about plutonium production flared in 1986 as the extent of contamination became known. Hanford’s military mission ended two years later. In 1989, Washington state, the EPA and the DOE signed the nation’s first pact to clean up a defense weapons station. The key five-year goals of the Tri-Party Agreement were ambitious: Renovate an old reprocessing plant called B Plant to start separating the most radioactive waste from the contents of 28 newer tanks. Start building a plant that melts the most dangerous waste into more stable glass logs. The rest would be encased in a concrete-like substance called grout and stacked in blocks underground. The plan began to crumble two years later, when congressional investigators and state officials determined B Plant couldn’t pass today’s environmental standards. With no waste separator, the grout and glass projects were in trouble. Dangers in Hanford’s oldest tanks, ignored in the cleanup agreement, also forced the mission in a new direction. Plans to bury the 149 single-shell tanks were scrapped after outside experts discovered some could explode. DOE considered encasing all the milder tank waste into grout, but feared there would be so much of the concrete, it would stretch onto uncontaminated land. The government later axed the $200 million grout project. It also delayed building the $1.7 billion glass plant, because it was too small to handle all the waste. Now, a glass plant for the milder waste is due by 2005, and a separate plant for the more toxic waste by 2009. After all these snags, none of the original agreement’s major five-year goals has been met. “By changing directions, we put a certain amount of money down the drain,” says John Wagoner, DOE’s top manager in Richland. It isn’t clear now that turning waste into glass is the best answer. A similar plant at DOE’s Savannah River Project in South Carolina is over budget and has start-up problems. DOE’s delays in settling on a disposal plan angers the Washington state official who signed the original cleanup agreement. “The ink was hardly dry on one delay when they’d propose another one,” says Washington Attorney General Christine Gregoire. She helped negotiate the original pact as head of the state Department of Ecology. “A rumor was prevalent early on that DOE wanted to put up a fence and write off the area,” she says. “It always lurked in my mind, was that really their attitude?” There is evidence for such suspicions. The nuclear weapons agency signed cleanup agreements with several states to win support to modernize the plants and keep making bomb materials, a DOE document indicates. John Tuck, former Undersecretary of Energy, described the thinking in a January 1993 exit interview with Energy Department historians just before President Clinton took office. Tuck said the department worked to portray then Energy Secretary James Watkins as “Mr. Cleanup” when its primary goal really was to modernize the bomb factories. Tuck also said the DOE was caught between the military’s demand for more plutonium and states’ demands to clean up contamination. “We had to give them their due in those jurisdictions where we left messes, and we should do that,” Tuck said in the exit interview. “We really mucked up Tennessee. I mean that is a dirty, dirty place. It is not as dirty as Hanford.” But when the Cold War ended in 1991, the Defense Department wasn’t interested in helping pay for the cleanup, Tuck said, “because they are not getting anything back…. What the hell do they care?” `WE’RE IN A MESS HERE’ The Clinton administration was horrified with the toxic morass it inherited. The new crew at DOE realized it couldn’t meet the cleanup goals without first stabilizing several hazards. The most dangerous remnants of Hanford’s bomb-making days have names that evoke a 1950s science fiction movie: PUREX, the K Basins, Z Plant, the tank farms. The K Basins hold tons of open canisters leaking radiation from broken fuel rods. The rods sit in concrete pools only 1,000 feet from the Columbia River. The basins were meant for temporary storage when the rods were dumped there in the 1970s. Now, the 16 feet of water covering the rods in the K East Basin is radioactive, too. A visitor standing next to the pool for an hour would absorb more radiation than federal safety limits allow in one year. “It was never intended for storage,” says John Fulton, director of Westinghouse Hanford Co.’s spent nuclear fuel project. “We’re in a mess here, frankly.” His staff is trying to figure out how to get the rods out of the pools and into dry storage where they won’t threaten the river. They’re not sure where to put them. The DOE’s cleanup chief is pressing for action. “I want to move that stuff as soon as possible,” Grumbly says. Z Plant is a massive building surrounded by razor-sharp concertina wire. Inside are 11 tons of finished plutonium in four nuclear crypts. The plutonium will not lose half its radioactivity for 24,000 years. In the rest of the plant, where workers purified plutonium, dust from the deadly material settled in the attic, in the duct work and on the floor. Workers in respirators are trying to clean it up. The tank farms are a third urgent problem. They hold 61 million gallons of a toxic brew of radiation, chemicals and explosive gases. “In the old days, the tanks were so hot they boiled, bucked and rolled. People could feel a tank rumbling if they were standing on it,” says Jack Leitsch, a Westinghouse Hanford tank farm manager. In 1990, two highly critical reports rapped Hanford officials and Westinghouse for minimizing the tank dangers. The DOE’s Advisory Committee on Nuclear Facility Safety scolded Hanford managers for ignoring the gas buildup in the tanks for 13 years. In 1993, a giant mixer pump installed in one tank to reduce explosive hydrogen gas was mistakenly started before it was safe. A week later, two workers were contaminated after they dropped a rock on a rope into the most dangerous high-heat tank. “The public view of us… is that we are a bunch of stumblebums,” Westinghouse tank system manager Bill Alumkal told a staff meeting after the incidents that shut down the tank farms. Meanwhile, state and federal officials set a new deadline for cleaning out the tanks: 2028. That pushes Hanford cleanup from 30 to 40 years. HOW CLEAN IS CLEAN? Just this fall, on Sept. 30, federal and state officials proudly declared that roughly 40 percent of Hanford is tidied up enough to return to the public. But that area wasn’t seriously contaminated in the first place. How clean Hanford will be in the 21st century depends on how much taxpayers are willing to spend, and how well it’s spent. Costs were estimated at $57 billion in 1989 when the cleanup pact was signed. Now, estimates range up to $100 billion. No figure is reliable “until we define what we want Hanford to look like at the end of cleanup,” DOE’s Grumbly says. “Cleanup can mean anything from high fences around the plutonium areas to green fields to anything in between.” How clean is clean? The question will be tackled by a new citizens’ panel working with state and federal officials. Cleanup progress so far is modest. A soil-cleaning machine has removed about 90,000 pounds of carbon tetrachloride - only a fraction of roughly 2.2 million pounds in the ground. Workers dug up 2,000 barrels contaminated with chemicals and shipped the hazardous portions to a disposal site in Oregon. They put an experimental cap over an old radioactive dumping ground. The cap is supposed to last 1,000 years. Contractors are building wastewater treatment plants so groundwater contamination doesn’t get worse. Scientists also have developed better ways to sample and understand the tank wastes. Sherwood, the EPA manager, says Hanford is poised to do a lot more work on the ground. “We’re at the end of the (planning) process and now is the time you’ll see a major change. I think the frustration is that we haven’t done anything real big,” he says. The major cleanup will begin at the river and work into the most contaminated land at the heart of Hanford. In the next century, the nine ghost-grey reactors that squat along a wide bend of the Columbia will be torn apart and buried. Fishermen will tie up at the shoreline, where a protective barrier will keep deadly radiation from the river. But a few miles inland, Hanford’s legacy will remain. “Unless technology moves much faster, we’re going to be there 40 years from now,” cleanup chief Grumbly says. “We’re not going to be able to throw away the key and walk away.”
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter

Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.